By Crime Historian Laura James, Esquire (c) 2005-14 WELCOME to my study of historic true crime, a literary blog where the chairs rest at the intersection of history, journalism, law, and murder, and the shelves are filled with the finest true crime literature. STEAL FROM THIS LIBRARY AND IT'S PISTOLS AT DAWN.
So I received a fascinating note from author James D. Livingston (who, when not professoring at MIT, writes true crime stories and soon-to-be published Arsenic and Clam Chowder: Murder in Gilded A ge New York, which comes out in July) who writes of Sacco and Vanzetti and Amy Bishop.
(By James Livingston)
It is my luck to live in South Braintree, less than three miles from the site of the 1920 robbery/murder for which Sacco and Vanzetti were executed in 1927. Considering the historical importance of this case, I had always been a bit surprised there was no historical marker at the site, but Braintree officials had apparently felt this was not something the town should be proud of.
One local historian had been arguing with them for over 20 years, and yesterday, on the 90th anniversary of the crime, he finally got his way. A small monument was erected, not to Sacco and Vanzetti, but in memory of the two murder victims. There was also a panel discussion of the case at the town hall last night, and an exhibit has been assembled. It includes, among many other things, the steel cage in which S & V sat during their trial and their death masks. In the panel discussion and the long Q&A following, all the experts seemed to agree that S&V did not receive a fair trial, and were probably convicted more for being gun-toting anarchists than for any clear evidence linking them to the Braintree crime.
In 1977, on the 50th anniversary of the executions, Governor Mike Dukakis issued a formal proclamation that they were unjustly convicted (but was criticized for not reaching out to the families of the victims, which Braintree has now done). The issue of whodunit still remains unclear, as it often does in cases of true crime.
Since this case of historical true crime is as least as famous as those of Lizzie Borden and Jack the Ripper, I thought you might be interested that Braintree is finally coming to grips with some of the darker aspects of its history. Today it is in the news again as the town in which Amy Bishop, the professor who recently shot and killed several of her colleagues at the University of Alabama, shot and killed her brother back in 1986. It was ruled accidental at the time, but the case is now being re-examined as a result of the Alabama shootings.
I am catching up on hundreds of emails that stacked up as I adjusted to my new life as house counsel for a certain company. This Inbox offers a huge collection of fascinating links in the theme, including many suggested by true crime authors and fans. 309 emails later, I am almost caught up and here are some of the best of them.
Book Review: The Poisoner's HandbookDallas Morning News “In this bubbling beaker of a book, Deborah Blum mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime....”
“Psychologists theorized that women’s appreciation of true-crime literature may arise from a fear of crime and a wish to learn how to avoid it; it was further theorized that what women learn from true-crime books just makes them grow more afraid and buy more true-crime books.”
- Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette
Robert Graysmith's latest true crime book has them singing his praises. Says one reviewer of his latest: "Graysmith exposes his personal trait to obsess over details once again, Lord bless him, and the result is yet another intensely detailed true crime text...”
Jerry Mitchell, one of my favorite journalists ever, has begun a blog about his interesting work. Some recent gems:
And here is a reference book oriented towards true crime writers. This is going on my Christmas List. WANTED! U.S. Criminal Records weighs in at 388 pages and 2 lbs. It lists, state by state, where one can find historical prison records, criminal court documents, parole records, pardon records, execution information, and more...Ron Arons is the author, to be found at http://www.ronarons.com
True crime historian Albert Borowitz has penned another book. A review:
“Every true crime narrative ought to feature a few unanswered questions. That's one of the pleasures of the form, that little shiver of possibility...”
On Valentines Day Weekend 2003, thieves broke into an "airtight" vault in the international diamond capital of Antwerp, Belgium. They made off with $500,000.00 in treasure which still hasn't been recovered. FLAWLESS: Inside the Largest Diamond Heist in History (Union Square Press, 2010) is the very first book about a heist of historical proportions, billed as "a real-life Ocean’s Eleven." The early reviews of this book are flawless as well, and my prediction is an Edgar nomination for this book, as early in the year as it is for such things. I'm so impressed by a troika of big reviews: "engrossing" (Kirkus), "well-polished" (Publishers Weekly), and "a must-read" (Booklist). The authors are Scott Andrew Selby and Greg Campbell. Details
The gangland slaying of Michigan Senator Warren G. Hooper was such shocking news in 1945 that it swept war headlines from the front pages of newspapers across the Midwest. Decades later, his brutal death is still something of a mystery.
Senator Hooper, elected from Albion, had made the courageous decision to testify in a probe of rampant government corruption, a legacy of Prohibition. His was to be the critical evidence in the investigation. He was slain before he got the chance.
Warren Hooper was ambushed on his way home from the capitol in Lansing to his home near Albion. That a public servant could be taken out so brutally and blatantly by a gang of thugs seemed like something born of the nineteenth century west and was a tremendous shock at the time. The image above is from www.newspaperarchive.com and typifies the banner headlines the murder generated. (The top-of-page-one, very graphic photograph of the senator's body in situ was also typical of the time.)
A new book about this old puzzle will come out in November. It fictionalizes the case. It is To Account for Murder by William Whitbeck (New York: Permanent Press), who so happens to be Chief Judge of the Michigan Court of Appeals. Thus the author is continuing a Michigan tradition; Michigan Supreme Court Justice John Voelker (better known as Robert Traver) was the author of Anatomy of a Murder, another thinly fictionalized account of a true murder case and one of the most phenomenally successful titles of its type and time.
Why do women read true crime? Well, men read it too, but mostly it's women who go for it. This is true of virtually everything, but a new study (available online for free for a limited time) sets about proving that women read and enjoy them more and asks that old question: Why?
Unfortunately, the authors begin their supposedly scientific work with a goofy fallacy. They claim that true crime has become extraordinarly popular "since the publication of In Cold Blood." That is ridiculous. True crime has been extraordinarily popular in English for at least 500 years.
Setting aside this absurd beginning, the study has some interesting things to say. This paper points out that women read true crime to:
1) Learn the motives and methods of murderers and to prevent becoming victims; some books contain defense tactics and escape tricks. The Stranger Beside Me is cited. I think this is true, at least for younger readers.
2) Learn about the psychology of violence and understand the warning signs. (This is true, too. As Diane Fanning wrote in her latest, Mommy's LIttle Girl: "We want to know why, because until we do, we cannot do anything to prevent it from happening again to another child. We have to believe there is a way to prevent such a death, or we slide into an endless pit of despair. Our only hope is knowledge, awareness of the red flags that portend disaster and an ability to recognize the warnings in real time.")
This study was fascinating but I was a bit disappointed. It contains a lot of assumptions about women and a lot of assumptions about this genre.
The true crime genre is vast. It is older than the printing press. It has had many a heyday.
It also has many discrete sub-genres. Fans are very specific in their reading tastes. The reader who snatches up the latest biography of Al Capone does not reach for the latest Ann Rule. Some eschew serial killer books, or outgrow them.
Speaking for myself, I'll happily plunk down $7 cash for any spousal murder story, but you'll have trouble getting me to read even a free book about a big heist. What strongly appeals to one true crime fan is snubbed by the next.
This study also does not attempt to explain the popularity of Snapped or the enduring fascination with such anti-heroines as Belle Gunness or Lizzie Borden.
Bottom line: True crime is older than some experts think and it's too big for generalizations.
The victims were a man who crusaded against cattle rustlers and his eight-year-old son. The disappearance of Albert Jennings Fountain and Henry Fountain has haunted the state and has been called its greatest murder mystery.
This title, it is said, replaces more than a century of rumor and supposing with as many facts as can be gleaned, and the author's nicely done website promises that the book reveals at least some partial truths about the mystery.
Included in the collection are photographs of some of the most infamous prisons in the world, Alcatraz and San Quentin. The cases highlighted include the notorious murder defendant Fatty Arbuckle.
Historian Hannah Clayborn culled nearly two hundred images from libraries and museums, including the Library of Congress, for a narrated visual tour of the criminal history of the city by the bay.
* * *
Other new books getting good press are The Best American Crime Reporting 2009, edited by Jeffrey Toobin (which got a thumbs-up in a thoughtful review by the Minneapolis Star Tribune) and another that made it onto my To Get list (even though it's set in New York) with a terrific Publishers Weekly review.
The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Pulitzer-winning science writer Deborah Blum was hailed as "enthralling" -- a word this genre doesn't see every day. The book follows the careers of two forensic pioneers in the Big Apple. The author "cleverly divides her narrative by poison," per the gushing reviewer in PW, which to me sounds like an interesting if unorthodox way to tell a story.
So I received a gigantic pile of brand-new true crime paperbacks for my birthday and cheerily dug in to what I thought would be weeks of good reading. Unfortunately, I got through all of them in less than a week. Almost every book was poorly done. And even that's being generous.
When I read a true crime book, I want to know three things: why, why, and why. Why did the victim make the choices s/he did? Why did the killer do what s/he did? Why did this person end up dead? Some details cast light on these questions. Alas, some authors can compose 300-page books packed with details that don't even come close to answering the fundamental query.
Most writers in the pile bored me to skimming with the wrong details. Who cares to know which brand of camera was used to take the autopsy photos? Apparently some authors think this is such an important point that they dwell on it.
Why is it necessary to write two hundred pages about the trial? That's not the story. Who cares where the judge went to law school? What time the trial began? The occupations of each juror? I really don't think any true crime fans want a long, drawn-out account of a trial. (And this is coming from a trial lawyer!)
But there was one book that did not disappoint. Suspenseful, insightful, considered, and aimed at answering the great why, the best book of the bunch, by far, was Deadly Secrets by M. William Phelps. I would call it a fatal love triangle, except I don't think that there was any love involved. The story of a manipulative psychopath, Fred Andros, and the women he destroyed is also a good cure for gullibility (not to mention the seven-year itch).
The next time my DH wants to surprise me with my favorite reading material, I think I'll nudge him with a list of authors - with this one at the top.
NewspaperArchive My most very favorite site on the internet. Millions of digitized, text-searchable newspapers from across the U.S. and the world. If my computer somehow froze up and I had access to only one website, this would be it.
Paper of Record Another pay-to-play website that features searchable historic newspapers. Canada is particularly well represented in its collection.